Summer with the Birds: Searching for Research Jobs

By Sarah Toner 19 Oct 2015

Aidan Rominger with a Seaside Sparrow

For birders in high school or underclassmen in college, both getting involved in biological research and getting a summer job can be quite formidable, but combining the two can be a wonderful experience. Two important keys are finding a job that matches your skills and experience and communicating those skills well. Below are some tips about finding and applying for research positions as a young birder.

  • Search, search, search. There will be many jobs that don’t pay enough, require the wrong qualifications, have incompatible start/end dates (a major problem for many students, because the field season frequently begins in April and most high schools do not get out until early June), or simply aren’t interesting. Keep on looking in a variety of places and don’t give up hope. Check listservs, such as the ones here, regularly.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to professors or scientists studying engaging topics near you to see if they have positions. Many are thrilled to have interested youth as lab assistants, even if they may not have a formal job opening posted.
  • Be sure to read the qualifications thoroughly. Many job hunters, not just young students, are guilty of reading what they want to read. Don’t be afraid to pass up some opportunities if you are unqualified for them. If there are recommended, but not required, skills, you may wish to do some preliminary research about those skills to better understand the requirements of the job and see if you would be interested in learning particular skills on the job. Some employers offer job benefits such as certification as a Wilderness First Responder, Pesticide Applicator, or Wildlands Firefighter–qualifications that can cost a lot otherwise.
  • Apply to many positions and keep track of them all. I built an Excel file, noting pertinent details: the name of the position, the location, the main contact, the pay, the start dates, a link to the job posting, and the application deadline for each position that I was interested in. In that Excel file, I also kept track of the status of my application: draft needing cover letter, draft needing recommendations, applied, rejected. I was rejected from most of the positions to which I applied, which was not surprising given that I was 17 at the time (see the note below about age) and had not yet graduated from high school. I heard about the job I took at Seney through adults who are involved with young birders (a great resource for job hunters), and I was fortunate to get the job and to gain a wide variety of experience with research and fieldwork as a result.
A sample of my Excel file

An excerpt from an Excel file

  • Be prepared to devote plenty of time to your resume and cover letter. I keep a working template resume so that I can pull information from it to compose different resumes for specific situations or applications. My cover letters always contain the same basic information, but each one is also tailored to the particulars of the job. More tips for writing cover letters and resumes will be posted soon.

    Sarah Toner at Seney NWR

  • Age can be a bit of a problem for young birders trying to get jobs. If you’re under 18, make certain to check that job postings do not specifically exclude those under 18. Even if being 18 is not a requirement, employing a minor can mean extra paperwork for the employer. As a result, communicating your age to an employer can be tricky. You may wish to reference your age in your cover letter (for instance, mentioning your current grade or other age-associated events such as year of graduation from high school) or to include your birth date on your resume. Even though I did indicate my age on my resume, my employer was surprised when I informed him at the interview that I was still 17 (I turned 18 before the start of work, however, so it was not an issue). However, try not to sell yourself short by implying that your age is a detriment. If possible, work the reference naturally into your resume or the text of your cover letter so that it seems an incidental detail rather than a major factor related to your experience and skills.

The job search requires patience and persistence, but finding the right job can be very rewarding and lead to even more connections and opportunities in the future.

-Sarah Toner